The Shape of Water

shape of waterWeirdly, I read this book, and it has nothing to do with the current film by Guillermo del Toro! Instead, it’s an Italian mystery by Andrea Camilleri, the first of a series starring Inspector Montalbano. A few months ago, I read the first of Donna Leon’s Venetian mysteries, with Commissario Guido Brunetti, and, trying this other series, I liked this one much better.

The book opens with a couple of Sicilian garbage collectors discovering a body in a place called The Pasture, which is a kind of sleazy open-air construction zone inhabited primarily by pimps, hookers, and druggies. The garbage collectors (both of whom have advanced degrees) recognize the body immediately: it’s Silvio Luparello, wealthy construction heir and aspiring politician, caught for once with his pants literally down. The pair, hoping for a reward — maybe even a proper surveyor’s job — call Luparello’s closest friend, the attorney Rizzo, assuming he’ll tell them to move the body to a less compromising venue. Instead, he tells them to do their obvious duty and call the cops. And so we meet Inspector Montalbano.

This book, as you can tell from the opening ten pages, is gritty. It owes something to the noir tradition, where dry, dry humor meets violence, sex, and intrigue. Montalbano is caught in a web of criss-crossing authorities: the caribinieri, the higher Italian authorities, some sort of Tyrolean-hat-wearing guys who do traffic checks, the mafioso. From the beginning, he’s under heavy pressure to declare that Luparello died of natural causes, and to close the case. But a careful man like Luparello wouldn’t die of natural causes in an unnatural place like The Pasture, would he? So Montalbano gets help from all sorts of people: the man’s cool, strategic widow; a Swedish bombshell who’s been assaulted by her father-in-law; a former school friend who’s now a pimp at The Pasture; and many others. The characters are brightly alive, and a fabulous window into Sicily: corrupt, ancient, complicated. The food’s not bad either. I get tired of rhapsodic descriptions of meals in detective novels, but Montalbano enjoys what he eats, and when it’s something like pasta with sea urchin pulp sauce, I enjoy it too.

The solution to this mystery wasn’t totally unpredictable, but it was complicated enough that I didn’t see all the facets of it, either. The best part about it wasn’t the plot, though, it was the characters and the writing (beautifully translated by Stephen Sartarelli), which means I’ll want to read more of this series.

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Posted in Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 2 Comments

Ninefox Gambit

ninefox gambitOkay, so let’s say right up front that unless you are a regular reader of hard science fiction, this will be a difficult, dense book to get through. I read a fair-to-middling amount of science fiction and fantasy — it’s a regular genre for me — but this was a challenging read, because Yoon Ha Lee drops you into the world and explains nothing. There aren’t any info-dumps. You pick it all up along the way. I was forty pages in before I felt like I was understanding almost anything at all.

However, this world, which is at war, and these people, who are highly skilled and trained in their separate areas of society, are totally fascinating. It’s like walking into a geode: slivers of sharp interesting bits keep poking out at you from apparently random places, and they are beautiful and cruel, and you have no understanding of how they got there until you understand crystallization and volcanic voids and infilling, which you won’t until nearly the end of the book. Uh, geode.

But it’s worth it.

In this world, the societal and military stability of the government (hexarchate) rests on the calendar. Everyone has to be on board with the same way of reckoning time, including feast days and remembrances, which means it’s not just a calendar, it’s a belief system. Anyone who wants to do it another way is a heretic; if it’s an individual they can be tortured, but if it’s a group they must be wiped out, or calendrical rot will set in and destabilize the regime.

Captain Kel Cheris is a successful captain who is currently in disgrace for being a little too willing to use heretical battle formations in the service of winning. She has been called on to attack and overcome the completely impregnable Fortress of Scattered Needles, currently in the hands of heretics. She can’t do it alone, but the help they give her may be no help at all: General Shuos Jedao, a mercilessly competent strategist who has been dead for 400 years and whose last act was to slaughter not only the opposing army but his own as well. His spirit inhabits her, sleeplessly giving her advice and counsel. Is he still a madman? Was he ever? Is this a truly long game, and if so, what’s the objective? How can she trust a thing he says, and how can she not? Can either of them trust the hexarchate?

This book is, as it turns out, about the horror of war. It turns over various aspects of this idea: the pain of being in the infantry and relying on orders from above. The way you never get used to sacrificing soldiers you care about. The exhaustion of battle. The necessity of understanding your soldiers as real people, sentient beings with a commitment to make to the cause, not just cannon fodder. The obligation to question orders even when you’ve been trained not to. The vileness of rape in the chain of command, even when it looks consensual. The difficulty of understanding manipulation and betrayal in the higher command, and how crucial it is to try.

And it does all of this in a highly original context, where, as I said, different aspects of the society keep peeking out and showing themselves and developing where you didn’t expect them. There is so much here, tightly-plotted and densely-written, that it took me a long time to read it and understand it. But once I got into it, it was incredibly engaging. Watching these people be so good at what they do was fantastically interesting, and I cared about them so much, and wanted to know so badly what they had up their (sometimes ghostly) sleeves. By the end, I didn’t want to put it down, and I wanted to talk about it with someone. Anyone!

I read this book, of course, because Other Jenny told me to, and I am so glad I did. Should I read the sequel?

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 9 Comments

Here Comes the Sun

Margot lives with her mother and sister in the little Jamaican town of River Bank, but she works among the wealthy at a lavish hotel. Almost everything she earns, both through her work at the front desk and the sex work she does on the side, goes to the education of her little sister, Thandi. Margot and her mother, Dolores, dream of Thandi’s becoming a doctor, but Thandi wants to be an artist.

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn shows how love can quickly start to look like abuse and how that cycle of abuse can pass down the generations. Dolores’s treatment of Margot, the details of which are revealed late in the novel, push her into sex work and away from the woman she was just starting to love. And it hardens her toward Thandi so that she appears to think of her more as a ticket out of poverty and less as a young woman with desires of her own. It may look like love—wanting her to succeed and thrive—but Thandi’s desires are never even a matter of concern. Yet without Margot’s pushing, where might Thandi have ended up?

Throughout the novel, the sisters struggle in their own ways to find happiness and peace. Some of these choices are hopeful, but others push them further into a cycle of pain. Thandi starts lightening her skin in pursuit of a false beauty ideal. Margot finally admits to her feelings for Verdene, a local woman scorned by her neighbors for being a lesbian. Thandi falls in love for the first time. Margot becomes a “boss lady” of a group of young sex workers. The question throughout the book is whether they will be able to free themselves from destructive patterns and find real, lasting happiness.

The story Dennis-Benn tells is complex. I haven’t even gotten into the real estate deals that threatens River Bank or Margot’s relationship with Alphonso, the hotel owner. But most of the complexity is in the characters, especially Margot. Much of the dialogue is written in a Jamaican patois, which some readers might find tiresome, but other might appreciate, as I did. (I suspect it would make an excellent audiobook.)

As much as I appreciated this book, I didn’t love it. The revealed secrets became excessive toward the end, and there were some gaps in the story that I wish had been filled. The final chapter is almost a postscript, and there were key moments before that postscript that I would have liked to have seen play out. And there were moments when Margot’s complexity edged a little too close to incoherence, especially as regards her true feelings about Alphonso. Some of this has to do with her own self-doubt and her need to dissimulate to achieve her ambition, but her actions didn’t always make sense, either as a reflection of her feelings or as part of her plans. So I wish that had been a little better, even though overall I thought the book was a very well-crafted debut.

Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

After the First Death

This 1979 novel by Robert Cormier is harrowing. I first read it in college, for an adolescent literature class required for teaching certification, and it has stuck with me. A recent conversation will fellow Book Riot contributors got me to reread. And it’s maybe even more disturbing than I remembered.

The story unfolds in two separate strands. The first involves a boy named Ben who has apparently been sent away to school after being shot. He is waiting for a visit from his father General Mark Marchand. Later, these chapters also include narration from Mark, who is trying to connect with his son.

The alternating chapters tell a more straightforward, but gripping story of a bus hijacking. A young man named Miro, from an unnamed (presumably Middle Eastern) country, is part of a team of terrorists who have commandeered a school bus full of small children. The plan is to hold them hostage until their demands are met. The driver, a young woman named Kate, was supposed to be killed when the bus was taken, but she’s help alive to keep the children calm as the bus sits on an isolated railroad bridge.

This section, told in the third person, focuses on the thoughts and feelings of both Miro and Kate. We see them watching each other, Kate looking for opportunities to escape and Miro looking to ensure that she doesn’t. Both try to gain the other’s sympathy, which is sometimes effective and sometimes not.

Cormier is not messing around in this book. The states are high from the start. A child on the bus dies almost immediately (mostly by accident), and the terrorists make it clear that they’re willing to kill more. Kate’s fear is justified, and her courage is admirable—and Cormier makes both her fear and her courage palpable. He does falter a bit in the depiction of the children. One child in particular is not a believable 5-year-old, even a clever one. But that doesn’t detract from the terror in the story.

The story of Ben and Mark, however, is the more complicated and difficult one. The chapters they narrate have a dreamlike quality. As they unfold, we start to see the links between the two stories. The hijacking took place near the Marchands’ home, and Mark is involved in a secret military project that the terrorists want dismantled. And both Ben and Mark are haunted by that bridge where the bus was sitting. Ben considers jumping off a bridge, and Mark worries that he will do so.

The specific secret that haunts them, that led to Ben’s getting shot, is hard to accept, but Cormier does his best to justify it. What’s more interesting, however, is what is happening to Ben and Mark in the aftermath, what the plan reveals about their relationship and how they feel about each other. The final chapter is particularly bewildering in that respect, and the secret embedded there is never fully spelled out.

Both threads share the common theme of how parents influence their children. In the first case, there’s the relationship between Mark and Ben. But there are suggestions about Miro’s own father and how his actions put Miro where he is. What parents say and what they do and what they believe about their kids have long-term effects. This book presents a worst-case scenario, where even a well-meaning parent is forced to act against his child’s best interests. The push and pull between generations can be intense.

This was the first book by Robert Cormier that I ever read, and it put me on the trail of several of his other books, specifically I Am the Cheese and The Chocolate War—if I’ve read others, I don’t remember them. It’s also a book that convinced me that young adult books can be complex and difficult. And, years later, I still found it hard to put down, even when the story became too hard to take.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction | 7 Comments

Miss Burma

This novel by Charmaine Craig tells the story of the history of Burma (now Myanmar) in the 20th century—from the 1930s to the 1960s—from the perspective of one family. Benny was born in the Jewish quarter in Rangoon but spent part of his childhood in India. On his return to Rangoon as an adult in 1938, he began working for a rice trading company. The next year, he met Khin, a Karen woman working as a nanny. Soon, despite their lack of a shared language, they married. The book follows their marriage through the coming decades, as they have children, are separated by war, and come together again in a pattern that repeats over the year.

Before reading this, I knew nothing about the Karen people and their fight for equality, freedom, participation in the government as colonial rule ended in Burma. I can’t say that I could give a clear history of it now, but what’s important to the book, which is based on the lives of the author’s own family, is the intersection between the personal and political.

Although born Jewish, Benny decides to consider himself Karen, and he has enough wealth and power to be able to work to advance their cause. But that work puts him in danger. There are times when the family is put on the run, he is imprisoned and tortured, and Khin has to leave her children to ensure both her and their survival. The circumstances put a strain on their marriage, and Khin and Benny sometimes find comfort in other beds.

Eventually, the story moves to the next generation, as their oldest child, Louisa, becomes part of the effort to get Benny out of prison and to raise the Karen people’s status and political capital by becoming the face of the people. In becoming the Miss Burma of the book’s title, Louise is attempting (at her mother’s behest) to lift up her own people, but she becomes a tool for the tabloids and the government.

The book covers a lot of ground, as political figures and freedom fighters rise and fall and as one generation passes to the next. It’s a good story, but perhaps too much for one novel. The years sometimes sweep by so quickly—I wanted more time to breathe. I wonder if it would have been better as two books, with one focused on Benny and Khin and another on Louise. The book ends suddenly, and it’s obvious that there’s more to tell about Louise. But the story of Benny and Khin would have benefited, too, from a little more time. I wanted to know them as a couple, to see them forming a connection and learning to love each other before the war ripped them apart.

Overall, however, this book is pretty good. I’m always glad to read about places and histories I’m not familiar with. It might not make me incredibly knowledgeable, but it does make me just a little less ignorant. When I hear about Myanmar on the news, I have just a little more context for the stories.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 4 Comments

The Housekeeper and the Professor

housekeeper and professorFor some reason, I thought this book was going to be sentimental. To be fair, when you summarize the plot, it sounds like that sort of book. But my friend Laura recommended it to me, and she’s not one for sappy stuff. I should have known better. And as it turns out, this book is gentle and kind, but never less than real about our lives together in a world that is passing away.

The housekeeper (never named) comes to work for a retired mathematics professor through a cleaning service. She isn’t given much information, just the essentials: she’s to work certain hours each day, and she isn’t to trouble the employer, who lives in the main house. And one more thing: the professor was in a car accident in 1975, and now his memory lasts no longer than eighty minutes. When the housekeeper first meets the professor, he says, “What’s your shoe size?” She tells him, and he expatiates on the mathematical importance of it. And their relationship begins.

This book is about creating and navigating a relationship between two (and eventually three — the housekeeper’s son, Root, tags along) people who have nothing in common. Most books or movies that go that route tend to give those people adventures together, that build a bond — they make memories and become “found family.” But what if you had an adventure or a wonderful experience together, and one of the members of your found family forgot the bond after eighty minutes, didn’t recognize any of you, and had to begin again? How do you create a relationship then?

The professor is a kind and courteous man. He especially loves children, and his concern for ten-year-old Root is touching. His world has shrunk to the walls of his cottage and his eighty-minute memory, but his mind ranges among the infinity of numbers: he understands theorems that the housekeeper and Root can’t hope to grasp. Still, he’s a born teacher, and he frequently offers them facts about primes, factorials, amicable numbers, and many other lines out of (as he puts it) God’s notebook.

For her part, the housekeeper respects and cares for the professor. She cooks and cleans, trying to think of what would make him comfortable, even though he doesn’t seem to care much for externals. She listens to his talk about math, and responds as well as she can, even going to the library to learn more. And she has the benefit of memory, so she can understand the hints she begins to see of the professor’s history before 1975.

There’s so much more to this book that I haven’t mentioned — baseball (a most mathematical game), the care of children, the balance between the ephemeral and the eternal. This book feels light, but it has real weight. It’s wistful, but never depressing. I see that Yoko Ogawa is a very popular author in Japan — I would love to read more of her work.

Posted in Fiction | 6 Comments

Boxers and Saints

boxers and saintsBetween 1898 and 1901, the Chinese people rebelled against foreigners who had gained power in their country, and specifically against foreign missionaries who were converting more and more Chinese people. Boxers and Saints, a two-volume graphic novel set by Gene Luen Yang, tells the story of the Boxer rebellion from two very different perspectives. The first volume, Boxers, is narrated by Little Bao, whose impoverished village receives help from the Big Sword Society. Little Bao learns kung fu from this group, and joins them to fight for China’s freedom and to help other people like himself. He calls on the ancient Chinese gods for strength (he knows about them mostly from opera), and during battle, he and his friends actually change into the form of these gods, terrifying their enemies. Eventually, they go to embattled Peking to lend their support to similar Boxer groups from all over the countryside.

Saints is narrated by Four-Girl, a child whose family believes she’s cursed and neglects her as a result. Looking for any scrap of affirmation or attention, Four-Girl turns to the local missionary, Father Bey. She isn’t terribly interested in his stories, but before she has a chance to learn much about the Christian faith, she begins to have glowing visions of a foreign girl in unfamiliar armor. It turns out to be Joan of Arc (!!) Four-Girl (now named boxer joanVibiana, after her baptism) admires Joan and her fight to make France whole and get rid of foreign rule, but Vibiana is stuck caring for missionary children and doing laundry. When violence does come to Vibiana and the missionaries, everyone has choices to make.

The fact that the Boxer rebellion is narrated from two different perspectives means that Yang wants us to understand that there isn’t just one clear answer here, one way of seeing right and wrong. Colonialism has… maybe an infinite number of heavy evils on its conscience. But Vibiana finds friendship among the Christians where she couldn’t find it with her own family. Little Bao spares Christian women and children because he worries about the bloodshed. But then Christians slaughter Chinese with no thought of mercy.

boxer godsOne thing that’s interesting about these books is that there’s no question that the gods and visions are real. They’re more real than most of ordinary life. Especially in Saints, the palette is mostly brown and white, except Vibiana’s glowing golden visions of Joan. The same is true in Boxers, where the gods are vivid, bright colors that contrast with the brown and black and white of the everyday. The art is cartoonish (if you’ve read American Born Chinese, it’s similar) and clear.

These books aren’t numbered, but Teresa’s review suggested reading Boxers first, and I think that’s the best way to read them. Saints narrates, and ends, the battle in Peking in such a way that it reflects on both books, and on the gods of both characters. I’ve been waiting to read these for quite a while. They were definitely worth the wait.

Posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels / Comics, Historical Fiction, Speculative Fiction | Leave a comment

The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman

beautiful mrs seidenmanIn Nazi-occupied Warsaw, in 1943, nothing is the same, and nothing will ever be the same again. Everything has to take the saturation of fear into account: names, addresses, jobs, friends, worship, going to get something to eat. Death is everywhere, and so is the desire for life and joy.

Each  of the twenty-one chapters of this novel by Andrzej Szczypiorski follows a different character: young Pawelek, who “was entering that period when love and death become a man’s inseparable companions and the thought of them never leaves him,” and his Jewish best friend, Henio, a talented mathematician who dies in the Ghetto Uprising; Sister Weronika, who “saved” Jewish children by giving them Polish names and teaching them Catholic prayers; a deeply kind math professor who dies in a summary execution; a nihilistic informer; a brutal street criminal who is a child’s only hope for survival; and a Gestapo commandant whose attachment to the Party is a banal reaction to his upbringing, without conscience or reflection.

At the novel’s center, however, is Irma Seidenman, a Jewish woman who, because of her blonde hair and blue eyes, has passed as a Polish officer’s widow until she is betrayed by an informant in 1943. The novels follows her arrest and the subsequent rescue effort that her community sets in motion, including her next-door neighbor, young Pawelek (who is in love with her), and several others. These lives are deeply connected by dignity and by courage, of course, but — as Mrs. Seidenman discovers — also just by the fact of being Polish.

The surviving characters’ stories don’t end in 1945. In each chapter, Szczypiorski describes their postwar fates, often caught up in later Polish political history, exile, nightmares, and regret. Yet each character has nuance. Of course there are villains here, but there’s also an understanding of what circumstances create villains, and how those circumstances recreate themselves if we’re not careful. Of course there are heroes, but there’s also an understanding that heroism is the work of a moment, and that a truly good person is the work of a lifetime of growth, love, and self-examination.

This book is beautiful. The prose is stunning (translated by Klara Glowczewska) and deeply moving. This was the first book I finished in 2018, and I couldn’t be happier at the way I’ve begun.

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments

Parable of the Sower

parable of the sowerIt’s 2024. In the first twenty pages of Octavia Butler’s novel, we hear fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina explain the consequences of climate change and total economic breakdown in the United States. She and her family are living in a walled commune, so they are scraping by — they’ve never had to do without a meal, though those meals don’t look the way they used to in the old days. It hasn’t rained in a long time, but they’re growing their own food, and a neighbor breeds rabbits in his garage for meat. Most jobs don’t pay money any more; you pay with baked goods or cooking oil, whatever you have. But outside the walls? You go in a group, and you go armed. People are sick and poor and starving and violent. There are new drugs to be addicted to, some of which make you want to set fires. Water is far more expensive than gasoline, and no one really uses gasoline anymore anyway. The kids of their commune get trained with firearms. It would be irresponsible not to.

Most of the people around Lauren are thinking only about survival within the parameters of the commune. How do I protect my children? Where am I going to hide my money, my food, my soap, so that when thieves break in, they won’t find it? What will I plant that takes the least irrigation? But Lauren is thinking about bigger issues. She knows their relative safety can’t last: the people outside the commune are too hungry, too dangerous. She makes an emergency pack that she can grab at any time, and she trains herself to use it. And as it turns out, she’s right — her own survival training comes in tragically useful, and sooner than she thinks.

And she is thinking about God. Lauren’s father is a Baptist preacher, but Lauren doesn’t believe in that God any more. Her God is Change — the only constant in the universe. She wants to start a new religion she names Earthseed, one that says that human purpose on earth is to shape change to our own ends.

This book was absolutely fascinating. It was so well and vividly written that I was hooked from the first page. It was exactly the right balance between dystopian survival writing (a genre I love) and more philosophical concerns, like the religion piece, which I found absolutely fascinating. There are other threads, too, like the question of how you form community in a society where the more people you have (especially women and children), the more vulnerable your group is. How do you value compassion or kindness when that could kill you instantly? Lauren has a neurological condition, caused by drugs her mother took while she was carrying Lauren, called hyperempathy or “sharing.” She can feel someone else’s pain or pleasure, which makes fighting off an attacker nearly impossible. It’s made perfectly clear that this is a vulnerability she would rather not have. In another book, another time, it might give her work, or even power.

Another point I found interesting was the question of race. It’s not a main theme of the book, but it’s there, because people of different races are there, and racism hasn’t disappeared in 2024 (big surprise.) One of my favorite scenes was when the small group is discussing going north, to Canada, to see if they could find work that paid money. A young woman, Emery, who has escaped a kind of company-store slavery, says to a young white man, Harry, that he could be a driver. “Maybe I could,” he says, hopefully. “I don’t know how to drive those big trucks, but I could learn.” And she explains that she meant a driver of people. They like white men to have those jobs, to drive the people in factories to work harder and faster. Harry is aghast, that anyone could think he would do such a job. “Some of those men like it,” says Emery. Racism is a fact, like every other poisonous danger in this world — older than the new drugs, newer than hunger.

This was a wonderful book. It was chillingly plausible, tough and unsentimental, and deeply satisfying. If you haven’t read Octavia Butler, this would be a great place to start (or Kindred, if you’d like a stand-alone.) I can’t wait to read Parable of the Talents!

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 4 Comments

2018 Book Swap

With the new year just getting underway, it’s time again for Jenny and I to share recommendations with each other to read during the coming year. This is a favorite tradition for both of us, both because we almost always enjoy each other’s picks and because it’s fun to see each other’s reactions. So what’s on tap for this year?

Teresa’s Picks for Jenny

  1. White Rage by Carol Anderson
  2. Version Control by Dexter Palmer
  3. As We Are Now by May Sarton
  4. Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer
  5. Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Jenny’s Picks for Teresa

  1. Hild by Nicola Griffith
  2. Home by Toni Morrison
  3. The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
  4. The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick
  5. The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher

Jenny: I knew you were going to choose White Rage. You’re practically handing that one out on street corners. I can’t wait to read it. But some of the others are surprises. I’ve never read anything by Kundera — he’s always been on my periphery. I’m really looking forward to that. And Version Control sounds fascinating.

Teresa: My goal is to get as many people to read White Rage as possible, so it was an obvious pick. I was sort of expecting (and hoping for) Hild and The Carhullan Army. The others are all books I’ve had on my radar to try, so I’m looking forward to them all. Another great reading year, here we come!

 

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